some of us are working to make some of this stuff possible.
Then and Now
The term space opera was coined by the late great writer/fan Wilson (Bob) Tucker in 1941, and at first was strictly pejorative. Tucker used the term, analogous to radio soap operas, for "hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn, spaceship yarn[s]." The term remained largely pejorative until at least the 1970s. Even so, much work that would now be called space opera was written and widely admired in that period . . . most obviously, perhaps, the work of writers like Edmond Hamilton and, of course, E. E. "Doc" Smith. To be sure, even as people admired Hamilton and Smith, they tended to do so with a bit of disparagement: these were perhaps fun, but they weren't "serious." They were classic examples of guilty pleasures. That said, stories by the likes of Poul Anderson, James Schmitz, James Blish, Jack Vance, and Cordwainer Smith, among others, also fit the parameters of space opera and yet received wide praise.
It may have been Brian Aldiss who began the rehabilitation of the term with a series of anthologies in the mid-70s: Space Opera (1974), Space Odysseys (1974), and Galactic Empires (two volumes, 1976). Aldiss, whose literary credentials were beyond reproach, celebrated pure quill space opera as "the good old stuff," even resurrecting all but forgotten stories like Alfred Coppel's "The Rebel of Valkyr," complete with barbarians transporting horses in spaceship holds. Before long writers and critics were defending space opera as a valid and vibrant form of SF.
By the early 1990s there was talk of "the new space opera," at first largely a British phenomenon, exemplified by the work of Colin Greenland (such as Take Back Plenty) and Iain M. Banks (such as Use of Weapons)-both of those novels were first published in 1990. "The new space opera," it seems to me, was essentially the old space opera, updated as much science fiction had been by 1990, with a greater attention to writing quality, and a greater likelihood of featuring women or people of color as major characters, and perhaps a greater likelihood of left-wing political viewpoints. Once one noted the existence of "the new space opera" it was easy to look back and see earlier examples, such as Melissa Scott's Silence Leigh books (beginning with Five-Twelfths of Heaven (1985)), M. John Harrison's cynical The Centauri Device (1974), and Samuel R. Delany's Nova (1968).
Nova is my personal choice as the progenitor of space opera as a revitalized genre, but that's probably a largely personal choice. (Nova is one of my favorite novels). Others could certainly point to something different: perhaps Barrington Bayley's The Star Virus (1970 in book form, but a shorter version appeared in 1974). Even more sensibly one could say that space opera never went away-what about Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (1956), to name just one seminal earlier work?
Perhaps, then, The Centauri Device is in retrospect the key work. Harrison conceived it explicitly as "anti-space opera," and it was a reaction not just to the likes of Doc Smith, but to Nova, which Harrison had called "a waste of time and talent." To quote Harrison himself, from his blog: "I never liked that book [The Centauri Device] much but at least it took the piss out of sf's three main tenets: (1) The reader-identification character always drives the action; (2) The universe is knowable; (3) the universe is anthropocentrically structured & its riches are an appropriate prize for people like us."
Even if The Centauri Device verges on parody, and explicitly disapproves of its subgenre, those three principles do suggest an alternate path for space opera, perhaps a truer definition of the "new" space opera: less likely to be anthropocentric in approach, less likely to accept that the universe is knowable, less likely to have the main character succeed (if he or she still does drive the action). And, anyway, Harrison returned to space opera with his remarkable recent trilogy, Light (2002), Nova Swing (2006) and Empty Space (2012). Those books certainly read like space opera to me, but they also certainly tick the boxes Harrison lists above (Harrison also, less importantly perhaps, started a trend for clever ship names in The Centauri Device, using phrases from the Bible and Kipling for spaceships named Let Us Go Hence and The Melancolia that Transcends All Wit. That led, it would seem, to Iain M. Banks' famous names for his Culture ships, and to similarly cute names in the work of many other writers.)
At any rate, once established as an essentially respectable branch of SF, space opera has continued to flourish. Some of it shows aspects of Harrison's model, at least in parts, other stories are as triumphalist as anything that came before, more often we see a mix. A good recent example might be Tobias Buckell's Xenowealth series, beginning with Crystal Rain (2006)- featuring heroes and heroines from non-traditional cultures, and somewhat ambiguous about the place of humans in a hostile universe, but also most assuredly featuring main characters with tons of agency and ability to drive the plot, and a general sense of cautious and perhaps conditional optimism.